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Watches tick to a different beat

Swiss engineers developed the first quartz watch prototype

(swissinfo.ch)

A revolution in the history of watch making has been celebrated this weekend in Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds.

The commemoration paid tribute to the pioneering work carried out in Switzerland between 1962-7 on the development of the electronic quartz wristwatch.

The event was organised by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the largest worldwide organisation of engineers.

"Today electronic quartz watches are produced in the zillions," Hugo Wyss, IEEE organiser, told swissinfo.

"Every year, one billion watches are produced. It's crazy when you think there are only six billion people on the planet. And the price which was originally very high at $100 is down to a few dollars."

Technology revolution

It wasn't until 40 years ago that the watchmaking revolution - from micromechanics to microelectronics - really got underway.

Although a number of unrelated inventions preceded the quartz watch, these inventions were not brought together into a single timepiece until the 1960s.

Swiss, American and Japanese watch manufacturers made important contributions, and independent researchers, university and industrial scientists and consumers helped make the quartz watch what it is today.

The Swiss Horological Centre (CEH) was formed in Neuchâtel in 1962 to develop electronic watches and it presented the first quartz watch prototype, the Beta 21, five years later.

Hard times

Despite this headstart, the Swiss watch industry failed to see the enormous market potential of the quartz watch and focused instead on improving the existing mechanical technology.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, the quartz revolution and world economic recession resulted in a drastic reduction in the size of the Swiss watch industry.

The number of employees fell from 90,000 in 1970 to a little over 30,000 in 1984 - a figure which has remained stable over the past 13 years. Meanwhile, the number of Swiss watch companies dropped from about 1600 in 1970 to about 650 today.

The arrival of Swatch in the 1980s helped the Swiss watch industry to recover.

"It was an important lesson," said Wyss. "At the end, Swiss industry learnt how to accept and cope with this new technology."

International effort

Some of the main actors who shaped the electronic watch revolution, including participants from Japan and the United States, attended the anniversary celebrations.

Although the Swiss were the first to make a quartz watch prototype, the Japanese Seiko 35SQ Astron was the first analog quartz watch to reach the market on Christmas Day 1969.

Meanwhile, mass production of digital quartz watches began in the US.

A bronze plaque was dedicated at the observatory in Neuchâtel while an ongoing exhibition at the International Watch Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds is displaying 40 prototypes of early quartz watches.

The IEEE has more than 377,000 members in 150 countries. In 1983, it began honouring major historical achievements in electrical and electronics engineering with the Milestones programme.

It is the first time that an IEEE historical milestone event has been held in Switzerland.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Key facts

The first quartz watch prototype was made in Switzerland.
The Swiss watch industry initially failed to capitalise on the headstart.
Today, 90 per cent of watches manufactured in Switzerland are quartz.

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